The Chinese claim that Guilin in Southern China has “the finest landscape under heaven”, and the staggering scenery here has inspired centuries of Chinese landscape paintings and poems. The best way to immerse yourself in this natural beauty is to take a cruise down the Li River, where you can gently glide past the endless backdrop of spectacular karst mountains, shrouded in mist.
The cruise sets off from Zhujiang Wharf, about a 45-minute drive from central Guilin, and meanders 83 kilometres down the river to Yangshuo. The whole trip takes around 4 – 5 hours, but the views are so spectacular that you won’t notice it take that long. I would however ensure that you have plenty of entertainment for the kids – I’m pretty sure that one beautiful karst mountain looks much like another to them, and even water buffalo lose their appeal after you’ve seen a few.
The most striking section of the river is from Yangdi to Xingping, and consequently this is the busiest point. We heard the other boats before we saw them – our large river cruise boat was suddenly surrounded by hundreds of motorized ‘bamboo’ rafts (built in the traditional style but using plastic pipes instead of bamboo). If your kids are older, this is a great option to see the best section of the river – they look far more fun than the big cruisers! This way you could take a private boat and also allow yourself more time to explore elsewhere in the region.
Unfortunately my kids are only two and four, and the concept of my two-year old sitting still in a chair for two hours is unthinkable. For this reason, the big river cruiser was perfect – each boat holds around 100 passengers and has air-conditioned interiors, with viewing decks on the roof and at the back, and plenty of room to walk around.
Do not forget your camera as you will want to take photos at every turn in the river, and they will let you know when the ‘money shot’ is coming – the section at Xingping that features on the Chinese 20 Yuan note.
A word of advice – the food on the cruise was pretty terrible. I would suggest raiding your hotel buffet at breakfast for the kids’ lunch and bringing plenty of snacks!